March 20 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

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Sometimes being ‘hands off’ can show that you care

Fr Stephen Reilly explains how Jesus’ example relates to our response to the coronavirus.

Mass is certainly different these days, thanks to the sensible liturgical restrictions announced by the Scottish bishops in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The restrictions take their place alongside wider societal restraint: Premiership footballers nodding their respect before a game, elbow bumping and social distancing.

The way we greet each other has changed in everyday life, too: it was strange not to shake my parishioners’ hands on the way out of Mass last Sunday.

It is good that we should notice the difference and miss the normal physical contact afforded by the Sign of Peace and our parish greetings, because touch is important.

Human touch

Doctors have become more aware of the power of human touch in mental and physical wellbeing. Integrative neurologist Ilene Ruhoy sums up the relevant scientific studies that demonstrate that human touch has incredible qualities to calm the nervous system, steady the mind, decrease the heart rate, and lower the respiratory rate.

It is clear that Jesus’ ministry was one full of touch, too, which served His salvific purpose. Jesus touched children brought to Him, and blessed them.

He touched His disciples who had fallen down in fear after his Transfiguration. When Jesus healed, He often touched the person: He made a paste to daub on the eyes of the man born blind; He took the hand of the little girl whom He bade, ‘Talitha cum’: little girl, get up’; He touched the bier upon which the son of the widow of Nain was lying, bringing him back to life. The transgressive nature of Jesus’ touch is clear in these passages.


As Scripture scholar Francois P. Viljoen points out, touching a dead person would have rendered the toucher ‘unclean,’ and requiring specific purification rites to re-enter the community; such rites are not mentioned, even in the Gospel of Matthew, written for Jewish Christians.

The meaning of Jesus’ touch comes into sharp focus in His touching of lepers. To touch a leper was to become a leper yourself, shunned from the community and subject to all the religious and social restrictions imposed on a sufferer.

Jesus’ touch is an expression of radical solidarity with the poorest.

The healing it brings allows the re-entry of the leper into that community: hence why Jesus asked the ten lepers to show themselves to the priest, so that he could officially sanction their re-integration into community life. So Jesus’ touch heals, welcomes, reassures, creates connection.

Spiritual reality

In these days, can we live with an absence of touch as a spiritual reality? There seems to be a kind of affinity between our situation and the season of Lent.

We are within a period of fasting, one of the disciplines of Lent. Fasting can take many forms, but once more Jesus can show us the way.

St Ignatius

When Jesus entered the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, He had to endure many privations: food, company, and any of the basic comforts of home such as shelter from the sun by day and warmth at night.

When praying the Gospel passage of the Testing in the Wilderness during the 30-day Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, I was struck that one of Jesus’ greatest hardships was the lack of physical touch. He had just left the warmth and affection of the family home to enter complete solitude.

John J Pilch tells us that Jewish society at the time of Jesus was not renowned for its sense of personal space, and while this may at times have felt like a restriction, it would certainly be missed.

Gospel scene

St Ignatius encourages those on retreat to use their imagination to enter the Gospel scene, and during my retreat, the only thing I could do to comfort the lonely Jesus was to put my arm around Him.

So while we should continue as normal in family life, we might live any wider imposed or self-imposed lack of touch as type of fasting, one which we live in solidarity with the Lord in the wilderness, and with all those deprived of the warmth of human affection.

Fasting is also something which we undertake for the sake of the poorest and weakest in society, which is why we are often asked to contribute what is saved from our fasting to share with the needy.

A sacrifice worth making

The many restrictions which we will face in the months ahead – to travel plans, work, sporting enjoyment, greetings and liturgical restrictions such not being able to attend Mass, really are a most practical means of protecting the health of the most vulnerable in society—the sick, elderly and frail—and a sacrifice worth making.

And when this is all over, we can greet each other with the heartiest of signs of peace, and maybe even go crazy and give one another a hug.

Fr Stephen Reilly is co-ordinator of Spiritual and Pastoral Formation at the School of Education, and member of the St Andrew’s Foundation.

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